Mon, Sep 08, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Japan’s rapid succession of prime ministers belies its global role

By Richard Halloran

Once again, Japan is politically adrift. The consequences for Japan itself, for the rest of Asia, and for the US as a Pacific power will undoubtedly be painful.

By now, almost everyone who ever heard of Japan is aware that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda called a late evening press conference last Monday to announce he intended to resign. After a stunned reaction, his potential successors started scrambling to climb into the prime minister’s chair.

More important, Fukuda’s sudden departure was telling evidence that Japan was not yet ready to step up to leadership in Asia, as the nation has had ineffective prime ministers, with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi, for two decades. Japan has thus relinquished leadership to an emerging China and has boosted the ambitions of South Korea, Indonesia and India to exert influence.

For the US, the ally that is often touted as the “linchpin” in Washington’s strategy in Asia has instead shown itself to be a weak link. In particular, the informal triple alliance of Japan, Australia and the US that has been gradually constructed in recent years appears now to be built on quicksand.

An immediate test for whoever replaces Fukuda will be passing legislation to permit Japanese warships to carry on refueling tasks in the Indian Ocean in support of US and coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Diet has authorized those missions only until the end of the year. Withdrawing that support would disrupt military operations and further damage Japan’s international standing.

Medium term, the turbulence in Tokyo threatens US plans to realign its military forces in Asia, notably in Japan and South Korea. Michael Auslin, a member of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, suggested that a new Japanese prime minister this month and a new US president in January will have their hands full keeping this plan on track.

“Billions of dollars are needed to move US troops from current bases to Guam or to new facilities in Japan, and Tokyo has pledged to provide much of the funding,” Auslin said. “In addition, Washington expects Japan to continue its role in missile defense, and Japan’s Defense Ministry is looking to upgrade weapons systems from Aegis ships to jet fighters.”

Longer run, the US has already expressed disappointment with Japan. The US ambassador in Tokyo, Thomas Schieffer, said in May that Japan was spending less on its national defense in relation to its economic strength than any NATO or developed country.

“Yet in a time when the Japanese people are increasingly apprehensive about military threats emanating from adversaries or potential adversaries in the region,” Schieffer told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, “Japanese citizens do not have to worry about their safety because those adversaries know that an attack upon Japan would be met by the full force and effect of American military power.”

“We believe that Japan should consider the benefits of increasing its own defense spending to make a greater not lesser contribution to its own security,” he said.

After World War II ended 63 years ago last week, prime minister Shigeru Yoshida soon appeared on the scene to begin rebuilding Japan. After him came several deshi, or followers he had mentored. Those capable prime ministers continued to emphasize economic growth and reliance on the US for security.

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